We Can't Choose Our Families...
I would be hard pressed to think of two characters more different than Luna in Stewart Lewis's You Have Seven Messages and Chris in Jason Skipper's Hustle. Both teens are trying to achieve some level of normalcy in lives torn apart by circumstance and must deal with issues of parental loss and lies as they look to the future. The fact that every time something goes wrong for Chris the reader quickly learns it will only get worse and that every time something goes well for Luna it will only get better, are plot issues that do, in both cases get tedious. But the teen characters are so strongly written and so damn appealing that in spite of plot points that will cause an eye roll or two (especially in Luna's case), the pages keep turning. Watching them work their ways through all of the family drama is well worth the literary ride.
Chris wants to be a guitar player and saves his money for an instrument and then strives to find time to practice, learn and perform in a band with his friends. His musical aspirations are severely hampered by his family life, however -- the occasional visits of his alcoholic grandfather, the needy selfishness of his alcoholic father and the poor choices of his mother who relies on men to save her and does not choose her romantic partnerships wisely. The family business is selling shrimp (except for a detour into bar ownership that goes as well as you expect) and Chris is out there every weekend and all summer doing his best to contribute to the family coffers. As he gets older he would prefer to make music (and have his own life) but his father relies more and more heavily upon Chris helping out. Even after his parents break up he continues to be guilted into getting the job done. Things don't get better when his mother finds a permanent someone else, because, of course, new guy starts out great then loses his job and becomes a controlling monster who delights in making Chris's life hard. In the end mom, of course, chooses the guy and Chris is bounced to dad and his girlfriend until things don't go well there and dad dies and he is bounced back to mom and finally -- finally -- he decides he has had enough and bolts for life on his own. You will cheer that decision, believe me, and also lament all the idiots everywhere who clearly need parenting classes before making the choice to reproduce.
Meanwhile, in Luna's world money is not an issue because her father is a great film director and her recently deceased mother was both a model and author. (The eye rolling can start now.) The death of her mother walking across a busy NYC street is the root of the book's conflict, as Luna discovers her mother's cell phone a year later with seven messages still remaining. Slowly (so incredibly slowly) she listens to the messages and follows up on their clues, discovering her parents did not have the marriage she thought, that both of them kept secrets, and her father is not telling her the truth about the day her mother died. Along the way she receives an impressive antique camera from her dad that helps her realize her dream to become a photographer. She uses the camera to take pictures of a famous model who befriends her and that, of course, leads to a show at a trendy gallery, representation from an arts agent, coverage in the New York Times, and a promised meeting with Annie Leibovitz. There is also a trip to Italy to visit her beloved uncle. Luna's world, as you can tell is very different from Chris's, and though the pattern of expect bad news for Chris and good news for Luna is unrelenting, the similarities between the characters can not be ignored. Both of them are very smart, both end up hurt by first romances, and both are stuck with parents who underestimate their strength. Chris and Luna are characters who force their parents to acknowledge they are not children and, in many ways, are far more capable then the adults around them. This makes them excellent choices for readers looking for teen empowerment titles and with their vastly divergent settings, class structures, and even genders. They make a solid set of bookends to any shelf collection of family dramas. Just be prepared for lots of beer in Hustle and lots of restaurant takeout in You Have Seven Messages (and also Dwight Yoakam in one world and Mrs. Dalloway in the other). The clichés might come fast and furious in these worlds but the kids are all right and hard to resist.
In the 1983 Twilight Zone movie, there was a remake of an episode from the original series, "It's a Good Life." The story focuses on a young boy with omnipotent powers who manipulates the world around him (and the people within it) at will. He creates a life as he wishes it and everyone, out of terror, is forced to live the roles he assigns them. (The remake included one horrifying scene of the boy's "sister" who had displeased him and had her mouth removed. Everyone who has seen it is getting the shivers right now just reading this.)
I was reminded of that episode when reading Nova Ren Suma's twist on the passive aggressive sibling relationship from hell, Imaginary Girls. This has to be one of the most polished and sincerely scary books I have read on family relationships ever, and yet for all its subtle paranormal elements, it carries such an element of realism that it can not be dismissed (we all have controlling family members, some of whom are a bit crazy). This is a book where someone matter-of-factly comes back from the dead, and yet that is the least disturbing plot point. Really. For all the strangeness and dark wonder of the dead girl who isn't dead (and no one but the protagonist, Chloe, seems to remember dying), it is the control that older sister Ruby exerts over Chloe and everyone else that truly reeks of horror. She just can't help it, Chloe thinks, Ruby's just so popular, she's just so magnetic, she's just naturally the center of attention. And then, as the dead girl wanders into her life and Ruby gives her trademark smile, Chloe begins to look at her sister with more cautious eyes. Maybe it's not everyone else liking Ruby so much, maybe it's Ruby making them like her, and maybe Ruby's just having a little fun with all that affection.
There is more, so much more, to Imaginary Girls than I can convey in this space. There is the swim at the reservoir and the town beneath that was flooded long ago, the mother who knows all because Ruby insists she carry the weight of that knowledge, and there is Chloe next to London, and London is dead, and Chloe is talking to her, but London doesn't know what happened, no one knows what happened, and then, in a flash, Chloe realizes nothing is right. And her big sister tells her she is just taking care of things, just making sure everything is okay. And Chloe thinks her sister loves her most of all, doesn't she? Her sister would never hurt her, would she?
Just hold on tight, channel your inner Shirley Jackson, and immerse yourself in one subtle and twisted sibling relationship, courtesy of Nova Ren Suma. Imaginary Girls is one original dark tale and a read I doubt I will forget.
On a lighter and certainly less murderous note, The Not-So-Great Depression by Amy Goldman Koss, published in 2010, remains very much a snapshot of our economic times. Freshman Jacki enjoys a comfortable life in California with her wealthy entertainment lawyer mother. There is a (very annoying) college student nanny to shuttle her and her little brother around, endless restaurant meals, and phantom employees who clean the house and tend the yard without ever being seen. Even though the parents are split up (her dad pursues a much more modest life as a baker and lives with his mother), everything in Jacki's world has a most self-satisfied air to it. Private school, no shortage of pocket money, plans for a $600 prom dress -- this is her reality. Then her mom loses her job (of course) and economics stops being just another boring school subject.
Koss approaches her story with a lot of humor, and it makes Jacki's story far more memorable than you would expect. As her older sister reels from the loss of not only the coveted dress but her ivy league collegiate dreams, the siblings cannot help noting their mother's struggles with the new reality. Forced to downsize into smaller digs, for example, she schedules a garage sale but then purchases clothing racks, a ticket dispenser, and cash box to make the sale "more successful." The mother tries to justify her purchases and Koss plays it for some much deserved laughs.
The Not-So-Great Depression is not a gritty exposé of hunger and homelessness, so the happy ending is no surprise. But it is likely a scenario recognizable to many readers as the economic crisis invaded all of our lives in ways big and small. Using the framework of a high school history class, Koss allows Jacki to work out the larger questions presented by her transitioning home life and also brings classmates into the conversation. What's nice about the deft touch the author uses is that while this could be a message book, it largely defies that pigeonhole. We had money to spend and spent it, and now we don't and have to be a lot smarter, is what Jacki learns. With the addition of a slightly crazy gym teacher, a very cute boy, a tart grandmother, and a group of likable friends, The Not So-Great-Depression succeeds at capturing a social moment. This is how it was, Koss tells her readers, and now this is how it's going to be.
Finally, Kevin C. Pyle has a very serious work with his new graphic novel, Take What You Can Carry. In narratives separated by decades, Pyle tells the stories of two teenage boys, one who was incarcerated in the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, and the other a thrill seeking suburban cliché found guilty of shoplifting in 1978. The older plot is distinguished by sepia tones and wordless storytelling while the more contemporary tale utilizes a pale blue palette and is full of vocal bombast and teen angst that nearly leaps off the page. During the war, pain and frustration is evident is in the smallest of gestures and expressions, while in the seventies there is bike riding and screaming and an aura of barely contained wildness. The convergence of the two storylines comes in the final pages, though careful readers will likely have made a guess about things far sooner than that. This is ultimately an understated and effective title that manages to convey a lot about history but even more about family.
Ken, who loses very nearly everything when his family is sent to Manzanar, sees himself shift away from the centuries old traditional relationship between children and parents when he is forced to navigate the unfamiliar rules of the camp. As Pyle explains in his afterword, it was often easier for the younger people to cope in the camps and obtain items necessary for the family. The group setting also forced a shift from traditions that resulted in teens striking out on their own in ways that were previously unheard of. For Kyle the decision to break rules is born out of peer pressure and boredom, a predictable desire to break free of the stifling suburban atmosphere he finds himself thrust into by his parents' recent move. Ken had no choice, Kyle had every choice, and yet even though so much separates them, in the end Pyle manages to show there is still a great deal to be shared by both boys, and even more so by the now adult Ken and the teen Kyle. It's a delicate story that Pyle gives his readers, one that demands some thought and care, and yet it is so familiar (running, hiding, even stealing) that Take What You Can Carry is easy to embrace. For those looking for a thoughtful read, this is the book to reach for -- not only for its serious words but the emotional depth of all of Pyle's wonderful artwork. Lovely, just lovely.
COOL READ: I fell hard for true stories about animals when I was very young (I have vague memories of an oversized book full of them that I used to pour over while lying on the living room floor) and was particularly delighted when I discovered James Herriot and All Creatures Great and Small. Most current nonfiction about animals falls in the scary camp (true stories of feedlots or what I like to call "how to become a vegetarian for life in one quick read") and the cloying camp (I'm looking at you "dog I didn't need, want, choose, but managed to change my life in a positive way before dying" titles). Herriot didn't write that way and neither did the late great Gerald Durrell. By luck I recently received All My Dogs by Pushcart Press editor and publisher Bill Henderson, which is reminiscent of the dog stories I enjoyed in the past while including some frank discussion of finding your passion, your love, and your way in the world.
Illustrated with drawings of each dog by artist Leslie Moore, All My Dogs is exactly as the title describes; a story, in chronological order, beginning in childhood, of all the dogs Henderson has loved. Some were with him for only a brief period, some were actually "borrowed" from other owners and not completely his, and some were part of every moment in his life and the lives of his wife and daughter. But here's the thing, as silly and bold and sometimes incorrigible as all of these dogs were, each of them loved Henderson and he returned that affection wholeheartedly. He is a dog person and cannot imagine a life without canine companionship. So as he writes of navigating the waters as writer and publisher, pursuing a family life, moving from one home to the next, engaging in a near quixotic quest to build a tower (!) in Maine, and more than anything pondering how to live the best life possible, there is always a dog at his feet or by his side. Dogs have made his life richer by their company, and just as the best writings of Herriot and Durrell, All My Dogs is a love letter in return.